Herald Article




For want of a paltry sum, a dream is about to die

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Murray Ritchie
Those miserable bean-counters who are threatening the future of the Crichton University Campus in Dumfries for the sake of a paltry £800,000 might like to learn from history. The forerunner of today’s Crichton was the Crichton Royal Hospital. In its day it was by far the best mental hospital in the world. In my native Dumfries we were proud to be at the centre of something wonderful that brought credit and international recognition to the town.

It is perhaps forgotten now but the fact is the Crichton should have been a university in the first place. Dr James Crichton, the hospital’s great benefactor, was a trader and a physician who made his fortune in India and China. When he died in 1823 he instructed that much of his money should be used to fund a university in Dumfries.

His widow, Elizabeth, took up the cause. Despite her best endeavours, the plan was frustrated. An official account of the Crichton’s history states coyly that Elizabeth was thwarted by “setbacks which were out of her control” and that she had to put “on hold” her ideas for a university.

The truth, which is well known in Dumfries, is that Elizabeth Crichton’s plans were blocked by a conspiracy between Glasgow and Edinburgh Universities, which did not want a richly-endowed rival in south-west Scotland. The people who run the Crichton today are too diplomatic to say so but that is what happened. It was an early example of how the central belt of Scotland and its two great cities settled the fate of the rest of the country.

As millions pour into the central belt and Gaeldom, the south receives nothing

So Elizabeth opted for a “lunatic asylum” – but one like no other. The Crichton was breathtaking in its magnificence, with a beautiful Locharbriggs sandstone church – more of a cathedral – and many other buildings of high architectural worth set in an expanse of rural splendour. The Crichton became a huge public attraction with its arboretum-style grounds.

Even the Tories at their worst in the 1980s did not have the nerve to privatise such a jewel and flog the campus for housing.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Dumfries embraced the Crichton and its wonderful pioneering work for the mentally ill. A century and a half passed and the treatment of mental illness changed. The usefulness of such grandeur fell away and those in high places began to think again about a university. And so the switch was made. Several interests joined forces, including Glasgow University, a vital component of the campus, and formed a nascent university. Those in charge have always been reticent when the talk turned to having a fully-fledged university of the south. Many vested interests would balk at the idea – again – but in Dumfries and Galloway, and in the neighbouring Borders, there has been a longing for decades for exactly that.

It saddens me to see my home town today. Dumfries, one of our most beautiful Scottish county towns, has become just like any other – a characterless place of dowdy charity shops, shoddy cut-price stores on gum-splattered streets and a few of the usual high street banks and chains. The historic Friars’ Vennel, once a thriving alley of curio shops and local traders, is half deserted and broken economically, like much of the town that was twice voted the best place to live in Britain.

The Crichton University Campus was key to regeneration and gave hope to Dumfries and the south of Scotland. Universities breed research. and research breeds development, and these in turn produce wealth and economic growth – exactly what the south of Scotland urgently needs. This is Scotland’s forgotten region. While governments and the EU pour millions into the central belt as a reward for failure and throw more millions at Gaeldom, the south receives almost nothing.

Want a billion for a bridge to Edinburgh? No problem. Want £800,000 to keep a dream alive in the faraway south? Tough.

I don’t know who is to blame for this scandal. But I do know this: before I retired as Scottish political editor of The Herald I went with Jack McConnell to Kirkcudbrightshire in the wake of the awful foot-and-mouth devastation in that area. I know Jack and I know he was genuinely concerned at the difficulties facing Dumfries and Galloway and at local resentment over the pull of the central belt.

On that trip he told me he wanted “to do something” for the south-west of Scotland. I may have missed his big announcement, but I don’t think so. But if ever he had the chance to keep his word it is now. Ahead of the May elections he should pledge a South of Scotland University at the Crichton – or I suspect the SNP will do it for him.

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